In the November 28, 2006, issue of Christian Century, an article by sociologist professor Mark Chaves focused on the trend of churchgoers attending very large congregations: “...people are becoming increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches, and this is true for small and large denominations, for conservative and liberal denominations, for growing and declining denominations.” After laying out various statistics and scenarios, Chaves suggested an economic model in explanation. In the mid-1960s economists William J. Baumol and William G. Gowen described “Baumol’s cost disease”: “if there is increasing productivity and efficiency in some sectors of the economy, and if wages increase in those sectors, then wages also will increase in other sectors, or else talent will move to the sectors in which wages are increasing.”
According to Chaves, “Churches are subject to Baumol’s cost disease. Like schools, universities, theater companies and symphony orchestras, churches face ever-rising real costs with no significant opportunities to reduce those costs by becoming more efficient. The only options in such a situation are to sacrifice quality or increase revenue. . .Americans are famously generous to their churches, and financial data from 20 denominations between 1920 and 2000 show that the amount of money gathered by the average congregation went up in real terms every decade since 1920, except during the 1970s when unusually high inflation eroded any real increase in donations. . .But increases in donations are not often compared to the rate at which costs of running a church have increased. . . .“When cost increases outpace revenue increases, churches cut corners and reduce quality by deferring maintenance, declining to replace youth ministers when they leave, replacing retiring full-time ministers with half-time pastors, and so on. . .And this will be true even if the church loses no members. . .the minimum size at which a church can be economically viable will increase. . .The result will be that people will be pushed out of smaller churches that no longer meet their minimum standards and into larger churches that still do.”
With this information in mind, invite your congregation’s leadership team to consider membership numbers for your church over the past 20 years. Discuss creative ideas for dealing with this trend.
INNOVATIONewsletter, March 15, 2007, The Center for Creative Ministry